Robert Black and Keith Drury have co-authored a new book, The Story of the Wesleyan Church, that aims to provide an account of the Wesleyan Church’s “roots in European and American Methodism, through the 1968 merger of the Wesleyan Methodist and Pilgrim Holiness Churches, all the way through to recent historic events.”1 Their account of the story of the Wesleyan Church begins not with the Wesley brothers, but rather a pivotal event that occurred on a summer day in 1968.
At a signal, the two lines of church leaders made their way down the parallel sidewalks of the campus of Anderson College in Anderson, Indiana. They were representatives of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America and the Pilgrim Holiness Church, and on a summer day in 1968, they were meeting to unite the two denominations.2
In chapter 1, Black and Drury provide their readers with both a snapshot of the merger between the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America and the Pilgrim Holiness Church, as well as a flashback to John Wesley and the beginnings of the Wesleyan-Methodist movement in America.
June 26th, 1968
The Wesleyan Church was birthed on June 26th, 1968, as representatives from the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America and the Pilgrim Holiness Church converged on the campus of Anderson College for a conference that would united the one hundred and twenty-five year old Wesleyan Methodist denomination with the seventy-one year young Pilgrim Holiness denomination.3 The result was a (new) denomination, The Wesleyan Church, which was 122,000 members strong.4
The major theme of the conference was unity. It was a theme that was expressed not only in the liturgy and ritual of the day, but in the location of the conference, which was half-way between the headquarters of the merging denominations.5 Most telling, however, was the banner that was displayed. It read, “One –– That the World May Believe,” a saying that “would become the initial theme of the new church.”6
Black and Drury transitioned, rather adeptly, from a snapshot of the merger to a survey of John Wesley’s life and ministry. Their section on Wesley begins with his birth (1703) and miraculous rescue from his family’s home that was enveloped by fire (1709). In a matter of a few paragraphs, the authors provide a brief sketch Wesley’s formative years and journey of faith –– his years at Oxford as a student; his involvement with the Holy Club; the missionary trip that John made with his brother Charles to Georgia as missionaries; and the life-altering events of his Aldersgate experience.
The survey of Wesley’s life is crude and astonishingly short. Yet, it works, insofar as it serves the authors’ purposes. (After all, there are a great number of texts and some rather phenomenal biographies that have been written about Wesley, and writing another biographic work was never Black or Drury’s intention.) That purpose being to set the stage for an exploration, albeit a brief exploration, of what the they refer to as Wesley’s “method.”
Following in the steps of George Whitefield, Wesley “began preaching four or five times a day in public squares, in the fields, from the porches of private homes, and once even from his father’s tombstone.”7 John Wesley viewed the world as his parish, a fact substantiated by his preaching practices and the two hundred and fifty thousand miles that he rode on horseback during his ministry.8
Wesley wasn’t just successful at making converts, however. He was concerned with making disciples. Consequently, he organized the converted “into societies, classes, and bands,”9 thereby forming a discipleship pipeline by which to equip the newly converted to attain maturity in Christ.
Within this network, lay preachers were groomed and commissioned for service. They were not alone in their endeavors, however. Each year they would meet with Wesley “in what he called a conference.”10
Despite his success, Wesley never intended to found a denomination. As Black and Drury observe, “Methodism was intended to be a renewal movement within the church”11 –– the Church of England that is.
Black and Drury conclude their section on Wesley with a list of some of the many ways that Wesley’s passion for reform found expression in his life and ministry. Among the many things that the authors list are:
- Wesley “was an early opponent of slavery, calling for its abolition in a day when few seemed concerned.”
- “He took up the cause of the poor.”
- “In a nation addicted to gin… Wesley led the fight against distilleries.”
- “He elevated the role of women.”12
The authors move from a discussion of John Wesley to a survey of Methodism in America. A brief survey, they focus on three main characters: Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, and Phoebe Palmer.
Francis Asbury “was a young man of twenty-six when he arrived in the colonies,”13 in 1771. With the blessing of Wesley, Asbury would help “American Methodism to become the first religious body in the newly independent United States to work out an independent national organization of their own.”14 The denomination would call itself “The Methodist Episcopal Church,” a name that reflected both its Methodist roots as well as the denomination’s intention to be governed by bishops.
Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury would serve as the first bishops for the fledgling denomination. Asbury would provide integral leadership at home (in the United States), while Coke’s passion for mission would help “to plant Methodist missions in foreign lands.”15 At home, the denomination’s work would advance in and through the efforts of a team of circuit riders who took the gospel to the people via horseback.
In the early 1800s, a woman by the name of Phoebe Palmer promoted the doctrine of holiness/sanctification with great success. Her Tuesday meetings would eventually give way to a periodical that had thirty thousand subscribers.16
Takeaways from Chapter 1
Chapter 1 was short yet rich. What follows are some observations regarding the Wesleyan-Methodist movement and its early champions:
- Wesleyan-Methodists weren’t afraid to put young ministers (e.g. Francis Asbury) in vital roles.
- From the very beginning women (e.g. Phoebe Palmer) played a crucial role.
- Social reform was at the heart of the movement. Wesleyan-Methodist often threw caution to the wind and challenged the respectable rules of society.
- The goal wasn’t to create converts, rather the goal was to guide converts to full maturity in Christ.
- The Wesleyan-Methodist movement’s growth was largely the result of lay ministers and itinerant preachers, rather than traditional parish ministry.
- Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012), from the back cover of the book. ↩
- Ibid., 12. ↩
- Ibid., 12-13. ↩
- Ibid., 13. ↩
- Ibid., 14. ↩
- Ibid., 15. ↩
- Ibid., 17. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 18. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 19. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 21. ↩